Monday, April 13, 2015

Same Old Faces

This morning Raquel and I donated and dashed. We’re preparing to backpack through Europe and needed to do something more productive with our clothes than burn them. We knew we couldn’t just sell them to the Santa shop that passes for a thrift store in Takayama. We’d tried that last week only to have them give us back half of our sweat stained shirts and threadbare sweaters. They wouldn’t even take them for free! So we hatched us a plan.

“Sumimasen!” I roared as I dropped two bags bulging with clothes on their countertop. The clerk twittered away in Japanese while Raquel dumped another couple bags on the table.

“Ichiban,” he said, gave me a laminated number 1, and pointed to the ceiling.

Of course I’ll wait for you to refuse most of our moderately worn out clothes my good sir. Why yes you can keep the beat up suitcase too!

Raquel did a quick lap through the lady’s clothes as to not arouse suspicion then made for the exit, pausing only to mumble loudly and point at the roof.

Why yes dear I do believe I will meet you upstairs for some light souvenir shopping!

But I did no such thing. Instead I nodded to the man appraising the resale value of the sweater my wife had bought at the very store, turned left as if to go upstairs, but instead tossed their damn laminated number on top of a used washing machine and sprinted for the already idling car.

Drive! DRIVE! They probably think I robbed them!

“Why are you running?” Raquel asked.

Because it’s more fun now drive damnit!

So marks the beginning of the end of living in Takayama, a place I’ll miss little, filled with people I’ll miss a lot.

People like Cody, whose brewery I neglected to visit despite having brewed the best sake I’ve ever tasted. If there’s one thing I’ll lament about leaving Takayama, it’s not going to Cody’s brewery. But we’ve had our fun. Cody had us over for dinner (we cooked it for him), and after he’d already gotten me pleasantly inebriated, he dragged me to the house of my boss, his father-in-law. I shuffled in with a bowl of hot chili and presented it to who I believe is the most fearsome man in Japan. This man is so frightening, that he almost reduced me to tears when I tried to enquire about his son.
How’s Cody?
“Kore?” he said pointing to a clump of carrots.


“Kore!” he shook the carrots more violently.

Cody! Your son-in-law, Cody! Please, I’m sorry, he brews sake!
“Ah… he’s fine. “
This man from my nightmares accepted my bowl of chili from underneath his coffee table, and divvied it up so his family could try it. They all agreed (or at least pretended to) that it was delicious, but Cody’s nephew was so smitten with my generous dollop of spicy meat-soup that he insisted I take home a 12 pack of ramen noodles. I tried to decline but before I could some other relative shoved a piece of fruit in my hand. I got out of there before they filled my pockets with the contents of their refrigerator.

People like Kuniko, my guardian angel. Kuniko is so sweet that she has asked about my hangover and denied its existence in the same sentence. I’ve sung “A Whole New World” with Kuniko, stolen Jasmin’s part and been too drunk to notice, but did Kuniko mind? Not a bit, she just sang louder. Kuniko was the only person besides my wife to make it through hospital security to visit me. She has made dinner reservations for us, talked to the man whose car I smashed on her day off, and taken us to town for not being able to dance the ABC song up to her impeccable standards. We tried to give her a present when we last met, a nice card we’d gotten from a museum she liked in Kanazawa, but she trumped us with a bag full of snacks, fancy folders and handkerchiefs. She is an angel. Fear her.

Then there’s the regulars, what Master Kensei likes to call the same old faces. Kensei, a man so cool he has his own post.

The closest thing Steve has to a frown
Steve with his yappy grin, unshakable optimism, and never ending stories. I couldn’t have survived snowboarding or my surgery without Steve there for me. He continually reminds me I should be lucky I have all these foreigners around, because when he got here, he had to learn it all himself. Steve was the first person I ever heard say Takayama is the greatest town on earth, but he and all these people seem to feel the same way.  

Chaba, who I hope I will get to see again, otherwise my last memory will be of him arriving at a restaurant the moment I finished eating, ordering a beer and showering me in candy. Not a bad memory except that he had to wear gloves and a jumpsuit while he ate because his hands and who knows how much else was stained with blood red paint. I asked him why he was such a mess to which he replied simply, “I was painting.”

Eric, the other artist in town and a shit-talking poet, who after a few months of proclaiming that he was God and art was his universe finally confessed that it’s really just therapy. Well, that’s not quite true. He only told me it was therapy because I had confessed that I think about a target audience when I write because I want to sell my novels, something Eric found hilarious and unartistic. Eric invites me to McDonalds because, “the coffee’s OK,” then insults me for meeting him at McDonalds for the next thirty minutes. He’s spent the last two weeks predicting when the cherry blossoms will bloom, “Yeah they’re very close, I think maybe, hmm… when are you leaving? Five days? Yes, they look like they’ll be ready in about six or seven.” I still don’t know how his lovely wife puts up with him. 

Nolico, who showed us, after being here for nearly a year, a side of Takayama I’d never seen. She insisted on a shortcut, our heads swimming, who were we to disagree, and we found ourselves in the old quarter of Takayama—a place I’ve been to dozens of times—but never like this. It was deserted save for us. Paper lanterns cast a warm glow on the towering torii gates and ancient wooden homes. Except for a single car poking out from a side alley, I was transported centuries into the past.

“Except for the fucking hotel under the Torii gate!” Ah, Alex the Ukrainian Israeli, who can be so hard to impress that his smile’s worth a thousand shekels. We planned on having a going away party last Saturday, but Alex threw a quiet birthday party on Friday that boiled into a wild night we were all too drunk to stop. Alex always makes the party happen. I had set him up by playing his favorites, the Beatles and Elvis, to which he proclaimed to Kensei that he only needed one more album for it to be the perfect night. Kensei dug up some blistering fast bluegrass and Alex and I showed off her patented hillbilly boogie. I can’t wait for him to come visit us in Austin and tear it up Texas style.

On Saturday we chatted and sipped our Heartland, happy to all be together, but exhausted from the night before “Looks like last night was your going away party,” Alex said between sips of Jim Buck. And dammit he was right.

But that’s life, aint it? We can plan our vacations and our parties, but we can’t tell when that moment you’ll never forget will come. So many of us wait for that perfect moment at that perfect time: for a festival that gets rained out (100% chance of rain tomorrow) or a flower to bloom in a town that’s just too cold. So many of us wait for these moments—for the dance party or the scenic view—that we forget to appreciate all the little things: The spur of the moment vacations that turn out better than grand plans, the idle bits of conversation we’ll never forget.

If there’s one thing I learned from living in Japan a year, it’s to appreciate the little things you got around you, don’t take any of them for granted, because you never know when you’re gonna lose a nut, and you don’t wanna waste your night worrying, when you can be bullshittin’ with people that you love. 

So seize the day, move abroad, take that trip! Just remember that Takayama’s got more soul than Tokyo, you just got be willing to dance for it.

J. Darris Mitchell lived in Takayama Japan for ten months, and wrote about what he did ever single week on this blog! Go ahead and explore, or start with Day 1...

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Sakuras in Bloom Don't Smell like Perfume

Perhaps if my wife and I had come to Japan earlier we would have stayed longer.

The magnificence
Sakura, stone wall, cold stream
Kanazawa's boss
We arrived in June and weren’t greeted by the majesty of the sakura, the cherry blossoms. In Japan, the sakura represent the start of spring and of the New Year. For me the sakura were always the end game. I knew that life in Hida-Takayama would be different, and winter would be cold, but that in the spring, the sakura would bloom, and I would say farewell. And for a time even that seemed doubtful, for when I asked about the festival for which I’ve been waiting for nearly a year, most of the locals would only frown and said “snow.” And that was why, not 30 minutes after finding out that I was cancer-free, we bought tickets to the shinkansen, the bullet train, to Kanazawa.
Three days off celebration later, and we were running like like hell to make our connection in Toyama. I was stoked. Even discovering that it we’d boarded a reserved train and that we’d have to pay extra didn’t bother me as I watched mountains zip buy, admired cars crawling along their archaic highways, and generally tried to combat motion sickness. This thing was fast, faster than (most) birds, faster than (old) planes, faster than a (rather slow at only 200 miles per hour) speeding bullet! We rolled into the station, I pried myself away from the window and looked at my smiling wife.
I love you,” I told her.
“Why?” she asked, grinning like girls do.
“You gave me the window seat.”
Her grin weakened a bit.  
 We emerged from the station and laughed at the queue of Japanese and gaijin waiting for the bus. Ha! Who would want to take a bus on a beautiful day like this? The park’s not far, Takayama is colder, and you’re going to miss the sakura! Thirty minutes of hat-snatchingly cold gusts of winds and just one measly sakura later, we found a temple that was only minutes from out hotel. Our walk had done little but waste time, for even the seafood market we passed had been slowing down, lunchtime being something as fleeting as the cherry blossoms in Japan. Annoyed but not beaten, we snapped the first of over 500 pictures of the soft pink blossoms and walked the next 50 meters to drop our bags at the hotel.
We were off to the magnificence that is Kenroku-en Garden during sakura season! Yes it was cold. Yes it was cloudy. No, it didn’t matter. Our march to the garden began with a row of twenty? fifty? a hundred? sakura bursting forth down the main avenue. Raquel darted through traffic to take pictures as I carefully avoided a gaggle of bleached blonde Japanese boys.

The Bearded Kaiju
fights mightily to support
huge croquet mallet
I don’t think that the Kenroku-en has an official beginning or end, but we somehow meandered down pathways that each outdid the one before. We strolled through the plum gardens, Raquel fuming “How can they already be done? There’s no bugs to pollinate them!” and mozied under ancient pines held up with massive inverted croquet mallets. Finally we found our way into…let’s call it the central promenade.
A lazy stream circled a grove of every sized sakura while Japanese tour guides barked what I hope were elegant haikus into loudspeakers over the twittering conversation of the tourists. Amateurs dueled for space with selfie poles. Professionals adjusted their F-stops and tripods, and Raquel and I tried to fit somewhere in the middle. (We had only selfies and F-stops, no poles of any kind)  
From there we set out giggling for the nearby castle.
This was my favorite part of the Gardens, for through a pink malaise of blossoms photographers of every caliber tried to frame the castle in all its glory. I took a dozen of these photos myself, and mused briefly on what having a castle surrounded by soft pink flowers might do to a man’s libido. My guess is good things. 
Mighty castle thrusts
Through pink feminine blossoms
Things happen in bed
We hopped on and off a bus and arrived at a near-deserted riverside walk flush with pink blossoms. We shared the sakura with only four other people: two old ladies snapping unsmiling portraits of each other and a professional photographer taking glamour shots of a young woman dressed in an unusually flattering Kimono. Raquel tried not to get caught peaking at the old ladies and I tried not to get caught peaking at the model’s photoshoot but the voyeurism ran thin and we marched on. 
We spoke of beauty, of the transience of the seasons, of love and life, but alas, we came upon on our hotel before we came upon enlightenment. There we took a good friend’s advice and rather than showering sought out the public hot baths. Public baths are always a better decision than the tiny boxes with a trickle of water that are Japanese hotel bathrooms (just be sure you scrub before getting in the tubs you greasy foreigner). At this particular hotel the bath was on the roof, so not only did we get a shower and a soak, we got to do so while admiring sakura 14 stories above Kanazawa. Totally worth the male nudity. If you don’t think so, do yourself a favor, and don’t ever travel abroad. I was careful to cover my tattoos and not my lonely testicle with a hand towel because I’m polite, not prudish.
Refreshed, relaxed, and reclothed, we set out for the evening’s entertainment, which proved to be a thoroughly disappointing experience. Raquel (I will blame her forever for this) was too quick and ordered the sushi set, so instead of ordering piece by piece an avoiding the gross stuff, so we had to choke down squid and octopus. I love Japanese food, even the gross stuff. I’ve eaten fried fish skeletons, shirako (that’s fish sperm to those keeping score at home), loach, even Bar-B-Q’d horse, but try as I might I just don’t like squid or octopus on my sushi. On a stick? Maybe. With some noodles? Sure! But on rice, with nothing to hide the texture? Yech. Still, I chewed through and was ready to order more, but Raquel pushed her squid in front of me and begged me to ask for the check. We went to an unmentionable bar not worth mentioning after that, and rose the next morning to hunt out more sakura.
After a brief stop at the contemporary art museum—I liked they swimming pool exhibit, but was flabbergasted and a little offended that they would host an architecture for dogs exhibit at the same time as an exhibit for the ‘architecture post-Fukushima—we sought out more of the intoxicating sakura.
A day of hiking through hills and hidden gardens and we found ourselves at another riverside park, leaning against a wall that both supported sakura trees and sprouted fresh mint from the mortar. Old men smiled at us and Pilipino tourists sexually assaulted a low hanging sakura branch. I nursed a beer and we both composed Haikus. Until next week, my final post from this amazing country, I leave you with advice for visiting Japan.
 Drink beer in the park
The love of my life
with me
Sakura season
J. Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama Japan for seven more days. If you liked this post, tell your friends and see what else he’s done in Takayama.